The desperate lament of Soweto’s poor and fearful elderly
People over 60 make up 9% of South Africa’s population, or five million people. Yet their needs are almost always overlooked in media reports about service delivery and quality of life. Tshabalira Lebakeng asked people from Soweto what they thought. In a terrible indictment, many felt they had better lives and services under apartheid. They tell a story of a dream denied.
First, an old lady at a taxi rank in the Johannesburg CBD opened up to me, saying she struggled to buy all her groceries because the Sassa Older Persons Grant is not enough. It was dangerous for a woman of her age to be in town because of crime, “but some of the shops here are cheaper”.
“Everything is on high prices: food, water and oil. Stressing us more is electricity. We throw away our little food. We fight hunger every day. Because our food gets rotten, it’s stressful to see your expensive food going to the rubbish. That is why senior citizens become loan shark victims; some of us have our Sassa cards taken by them because we can’t pay back their money.
“Sometimes I can’t cook, because there is no electricity and I can’t afford paraffin. On some days I sleep in a dark house, because I can’t even afford to buy a R5 candle.
“Back then there was discipline in the municipality’s offices, the government was managing the system very well, and in the old days if you didn’t do your job properly you had to account for poor management.
“If you were an old man or lady, you were serviced first and went home. Today old people are standing in line till they feel their knee bones are about to burst.
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“It seems as if government workers are stress-free; they don’t care if you are happy or not with their services. They even told us that ‘you can go to lay a complaint’, they don’t care. It shows that we are really free in this country, old people are treated like used toilet paper.”
Many senior citizens say that in the old days the elderly, women and children were better protected. For example, they say if you were a widow and you didn’t have a place to stay, you went to the municipality’s offices and informed them that you are stranded with children, and they made sure you got a place.
They contrast this with “this new government” which promised houses to senior citizens. “But when you go out there, our senior citizens are still living in shameful shacks. Old ladies are raped, murdered and abused, the police are taking time to solve these cases.”
Old, sick and unsafe
For example, Hlengiwe Mkhabela (65) is a street vendor at Joubert Park in Johannesburg. I spoke to her on a rainy day, her shoulders were covered with plastic to protect her from getting wet. Her only hope is the old blanket wrapped around her waist for warmth.
“I come here every day to sell my fruits and vegetables, on rainy days or not. There is nothing I can do because I have to provide for my family. I can’t enjoy the SASSA money. I have to feed my grandchildren with it. I took them to school with it, I had hoped that when they were done with school they would get a job. But nothing is happening in their lives. They are at home doing nothing with their high qualifications.
“I’m not making much by selling here. As you can see I’m old and sick. It’s not safe here. These boys come here and take my stuff for free. No one is protecting me. This town it’s not safe. It’s like we are animals in the jungle. There is no remorse, crime is high, I don’t know how to explain this. People kill people like insects,” said Mkhabela.
“Yes, the old government was cruel and dangerous, but compared to what is happening in this new government it is worse and more dangerous. Our government eats all and gives the leftovers to the poor.”
Mkhabela added: “My parents were working at white people’s houses, but there was lots of food at my home. My brother was working at the municipality collecting toilet buckets because other places didn’t have flushing toilets. That bucket toilet system was managed very well; they were collected on time. Not like in this black government where people end up throwing toilet buckets at the door of the municipality.
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“I was working as a cleaner at the restaurant. When it was month end all of us were contributing to the house. My brother would buy a big bag of coal for the stove. I would buy food and my toiletry. My parents would make sure rent was paid. All of us were working but our parents were taking care of us. Yes, people were poor but not poor like today.”
Mkhabela says she misses the old days when white people were in charge.
“There were lots of jobs, it was easy to get domestic work, factories work, and others were fixing roads. Life was easy: if the police would find you walking around in the streets looking for work they would take you to the nearest factories or wherever there are workplaces.
Today you will find police vans playing loud music, and the police showing off. Today you find police drunk on duty, dancing in a uniform.
“They would ask the bosses if they can give you a job or if they know anyone who can give you a job because the old government knew that if you don’t have a job you will think about crime. You get the job, and after work, you will go home with good news to your family that you have a job.
“Today police don’t care, they are the ones robbing people.”
“Hayibo bafika abantu abamnyama, bathi bayalungisa basithatha basifaka endlaleni. Silamba njenge zinja. Badla imali nemindeniyabo!” (Here come black people who say they will fix the country. But they put us in hunger, we are hungry like dogs. They eat money with their families).
She said that “back in the days, parents knew that when their children completed their studies they would get jobs. Those who come from poor families will save their families from poverty. Look now graduates are at home smoking drugs, others turning to crime.”
Victims of rampant crime
I found Letsau Letsosa (74) sitting outside in a dusty yard, eating slices of bread and juice. He lives in Orlando West and said that in the past he was a security guard. “As a security guard you had to have something to report at the office, like how many people you helped, and did you protect anyone from harm.
“It was a must to make the town safe. If you see an old lady or old man it is a must to make sure they know the directions where they are going. Not today – the securities are just standing in their post. They don’t care if you are screaming, you are getting mugged, they will say it’s not their post where there is someone screaming.
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“Look at the places where there are lots of white people, there is less crime. This is because security guards know they must make sure to protect that environment with their lives. Look in town, criminals are robbing people just in front of the security. In this black government, none is managing the system. They just pay people without checking if they did a great job.”
Letsosa says he remembers that when there was a house robbery in their street, you could feel the presence of the police. “They asked everyone questions at our location, and you won’t say you didn’t hear anything. Even if you can say dogs were barking the whole night, that was useful. Before the end of the week, the criminals that robbed that house were arrested.
“Today the police don’t come. You go to them and they will be telling you to go home they will follow you. But they don’t follow you. Back then those yellow police vans were police service only… today you will find police vans playing loud music, and the police showing off. Today you find police drunk on duty, dancing in a uniform.
People who are in big offices are greedy. They are eating the same money that must go to poor people.
“Police don’t have that dignity that the old police had. If they find you walking at night they rob you. Every day on the radio, television, and in newspapers police did something bad. They don’t respect the oath they took.
“Look around at our locations, you find drug dealers selling drugs publicly. They are not hiding anymore, they just do their dirty business in front of the police. During the old government, there were drugs but they were not visible like now. Look at our youth, they get drugs in every corner of South Africa.
“We lost everything in this new government; education is gone, our children can’t read a simple sentence. Our youth are walking dead because of drugs, and we old people are scared to go to the shops because they are always standing there asking for just R1. If you don’t give them, they push you. You will fall and they take everything you have. We can’t fight back, we are old.
“Our government has just forgotten about us senior citizens. They will come with food parcels when they want us to vote for them,’’ said Letsosa.
According to Martha Letsoalo (65), “poor people are getting poorer, the rich are getting richer”.
“I remember senior citizens before 1994 were promised that they will be taken care of. But look what is happening to us. They are giving us R1,000 in a grant. With that money we pay for water, electricity and food. There is no welfare,” she said.
“Back in the days, white people used to take care of women and children, if the father of the child is working. But [if] he’s not taking care of the children, the wife would take the children to their father’s workplace. The boss will make the father maintain the children by force. There were not these long queues at government offices, where ladies are arresting the husbands and boyfriends for maintenance.
“This is a new South Africa that is struggling to provide its people with electricity and water. What is so difficult for this new government to take care of its people? Where are those social workers going door to door, to check on old people that are struggling with social problems?”
Letsoalo said that “black people always apologise about fixing this and that, but the money is missing”.
“People who are in big offices are greedy. They are eating the same money that must go to poor people. Where is the law that was arresting the thefts? Not these new laws that thieves are getting away with crime. I’m living in South Africa, and I have to lock myself in a house because there is someone who will rape and strangle me.”
Hope Bowes (85) from Orlando East said that when she arrived in Orlando she had a two-room house and rent was R16. When she wanted to add another room she went to the municipality’s office to inform them. They approved everything in seconds and told her she would pay R1 extra. They also installed electricity for free, and faster.
“I remember one time I went to the municipality offices, to tell them that I still have that old toilet where you had to pull a chain to flush it. They drove with me to my house and they changed the toilet. It was done free of charge and very quickly.
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“In the old government, they used to check cracked walls and leaking roofs, and the fences were fixed if they were not in good condition. Look at the houses of the old government, the walls are still standing strong.
“Look at the new South Africa’s RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) houses; these houses are always in the news because they are not in a good condition. In some places the RDP house is just a big hole, not divided into [rooms], and a small slab of wall they call it a toilet. There is no privacy. The walls are cracked. I don’t talk about the roofs leaking like an old abandoned house.
“But our government is saying they are giving people new houses. No one is coming to check if you have any problem with the house, they just leave you there and you will see how you will fix it. If you are not working you will live with your children in that dusty, leaking hole.
“Just go to RDP places and you will see hell. Pipes, toilets, and sewage are leaking, and plastics are on top of the house to stop rain and dust!”
Gogo Bowes said they struggle to access even old-age grants because there is always a problem with the Sassa system. She saw on television that a Sassa official had been arrested for stealing poor citizens’ money.
“People who rent government flats are paying thousands of rand. But it’s a problem with service delivery maintenance. They have to call the offices and wait for years to get help, or they have to start a protest and fight. There is nothing for free, no matter if you are paying millions of rand for rent. All they know is taxing people and eating that tax,” said Bowes.
She said the old government didn’t want unnecessary shacks in locations. The crime was there, but not like today. On summer nights they used to sleep with doors open, without any fear of the world.
“Today people from other countries come to our country without documents. They told us right in our faces that this is a free country, everything is free, even the houses are free. Because our people at the offices like bribes. You just give them as little as R1,000 to get a house. So, because South Africans don’t want to pay a bribe, we are waiting for free houses; we will wait till we die.”
If our grandmothers and grandfathers feel neglected to the point that they want to go back to the past, it means we have a big problem with our government. The song of corruption won’t stop if we still elect corrupt people. If we still have hope in the people who are stealing our money and getting away with it, then we are still going to live in the dark without electricity till we die. Criminals will rob and kill us. Women and children and old ladies will be raped and killed, and no one will protect them.
All we will get are empty promises, graves and poverty. DM/MC